11 January 2021
What a 2000-year-old sector taught us about our culture

The Higher Education sector is one of the oldest sector’s in the world – beginning in the year 2 B.C. Our start-up is 5 years old. 

As a B2B business, we work with higher education providers around the world. In total, we have over 350 university partners. 

And while many articles have been dedicated to what corporations and universities and other sectors can learn from start-ups, I often look to our customers to see what we can learn from them. So what best practice can a start-up take from institutions that are hundreds of years old, and a sector that is 2000 years old? 

1. Diversity improves decision-making

There’s a well-documented problem in tech and in the start-up landscape: it isn’t very diverse. Big Tech companies like Apple and Google are over 65% male, and for many smaller companies that number is even worse. 

But diversity isn’t just about optics – a diverse company improves decision making. That means diversity in every department, at every level. 

Accessibility is a core value of higher education and universities around the world are taking big steps to address it – in ways that other sectors simply aren’t. That’s not to say they’ve succeeded – there’s a long way to go to improve diversity in higher education – but they are putting real strategies in place to fix it. 

Sometimes universities can be compared to cruise ships, that can’t easily turn or change direction. Yet, on diversity, we have seen some radical programmes. Such as the Dutch university that pledged to only hire women until it met targets. Or the Cambridge University scholarships funded by UK grime artist Stormzy to support students of color.  

Recognising that this diversity improves culture and decision-making is vital for start-ups, and should be made a priority from day 1.

2. Red tape isn’t always bad

Universities get a bit of a bad reputation for getting tangled up in red tape. Something as simple as purchasing a chair often requires several steps of procurement, working through multiple different departments and getting sign-off from a whole host of people. 

Start-ups, on the other hand, are a far cry from that. When you’re a team of 6, or 12, or even 20 – you can shout over to the CEO to get sign off on your spending plans. But what we’ve realised is that a bit of red tape isn’t a bad thing. Some procedure for spend approval, a travel policy, standardisation in interviews and more processes are good – even though “process” can sometimes be a bad word in a start-up. 

And getting them in early saves a lot of hard work as the company grows to the point where they are essential. 

Proper process also supports number 1, boosting diversity. While it might not seem like a priority, getting the right policies in place can support diversity. A good maternity and paternity policy, a rigorous interview process that excludes bias as much as possible, proper progression plans: all of this contributes to attracting a team that is reflective of the society you’re operating in. 

3. Look after your community

There’s an expression in the university world of ‘Town and Gown’: a city or town that is home to a university often has two distinct communities: the students, and the locals. 

But universities increasingly see it as their duty to merge the two communities, and also make a positive impact on the local area. This is through creating jobs, supporting community initiatives and taking action to benefit the local area – even when there is no direct profit to be made from this. 

With many start-ups based in San Francisco, London, New York and other start-up hubs, community can take on a wider meaning: like the sector we work in. So now we should make a habit of saying, not just how can we profit from our community, but how can we benefit it even at our own expense. 

It’s the next generation of corporate social responsibility that doesn’t come with PR benefits, but simply recognises that a sustainable business contributes to a sustainable society. 


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